Ministers look set to rule out national bursaries or fee waivers for maths undergraduates despite warnings that too few students are studying the subject at uni-versity, The Times Higher has learnt.
Universities will instead have the power to vary top-up fees from 2006, allowing discounts for subjects such as maths, according to the Department for Education and Skills.
Adrian Smith's report on the study of mathematics post-14, published this week, warns of a bottleneck in the supply of maths undergraduates that could put Britain's future economic success in jeopardy.
Professor Smith, the principal of Queen Mary, University of London, calls on vice-chancellors to consider financial incentives - such as a fee waiver - to increase the appeal of maths and to persuade teenagers to pursue the subject beyond A level into university and teacher training.
But Universities UK, the umbrella group for vice-chancellors, said that, while its members would weigh up the need for incentives in some subjects, ministers ought to give "appropriate consideration" to national support schemes.
This was particularly important where there was "a widespread problem relating to student demand for a nationally-important subject", UUK said.
Duncan Lawson, chairman of the Heads of Departments of Mathematical Sciences, said that any incentives should be "centrally-funded".
Professor Lawson said: "There is a need to get more students to study mathematics and scientific subjects in university, but I think to put the financial burden on universities would not be the right way to go about it.
It would be more appropriate for it to be done by the government."
The government is due to make its formal response to Professor Smith's report at the end of next month.
But sources at the DFES said it was unlikely that ministers would propose a national incentive scheme and would look instead to vice-chancellors to use variable fees to increase the appeal of subjects such as maths.
Ministers will also wait for the findings of Sir Alan Langland's Gateways to the Professions report next year on sweeteners for public-sector professionals before introducing incentives or changing the current "golden hello" scheme for teacher training.
Professor Smith's report says that GCSE pupils lack "fluency and skills" in the subject and that the Curriculum 2000 reforms that established the AS and A2 system are "misguided and misconceived".
He calls for a new national centre of excellence and a network of "regional maths centres" to coordinate collaboration between universities, employers and secondary schools.
His report, commissioned by the Treasury last year, also calls for formal arrangements between schools and universities to send undergraduates into the classroom to assist teachers.